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New Obama plan: Test a job, keep unemployment benefits

April 2011: Americans wait in line for unemployment benefitsAP

The Obama administration is announcing the start of a new strategy to curb nagging unemployment – allowing Americans to keep their benefits while trying out a job.

The program will be administered on the state level, with the Labor Department opening the application process Thursday for 10 model programs across the country.

The so-called Bridge to Work program was in fact a key part of the payroll tax cut package that President Obama negotiated with congressional Republicans in February.

The national jobless rate for March was 8.2 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A Labor Department spokesman said the program has already garnered a lot of interest, with Texas attempting to apply almost immediately after lawmakers agreed to the deal.

He said the program is designed to give states “some flexibility” regarding unemployment benefits and that Minnesota and Pennsylvania have also expressed interest in participating.

The plan is modeled after a Georgia program and would allow workers who have lost jobs to be placed in other temporary jobs as trainees for short periods to retain their skills or gain new ones while receiving jobless assistance.

About a third of the time, those workers wind up getting hired full-time.

North Carolina, New Hampshire, Utah and Missouri are among several states that combine unemployment benefits with on-the-job training.

States that are chosen could get waivers from the federal government allowing them to tap their unemployment insurance accounts to pay for such costs as transportation for workers in temporary jobs.

The program has had mixed results in some states that have their own programs. Administration officials said they hope the waivers and assistance offered by the federal demonstration projects could help rectify any problems that have emerged.

Supporters of the programs say it helps workers retain or learn new skills and add new job references to their resumes. The plan passed with support from leading Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

It also is designed to answer critics of unemployment benefits who say the aid discourages some people from aggressively seeking work.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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